Overtures toward Iran

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After nearly two months in office, the new US president appears to be approaching the Islamic regime in Tehran with a great deal of caution. He has been careful to distance himself from the radical stance his predecessor adopted. Gone are the days when the US president called the Islamic regime part of the "axis of evil". The new administration seems also to have departed from another principle of US policy toward Iran: for many years, successive US officials maintained that Iran must halt its uranium enrichment before any negotiations could begin with Tehran.

Moreover, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a somewhat cordial message to Iran inviting the Islamic regime to take part in an upcoming regional conference on the future of Afghanistan, attended by that country’s neighbors and the NATO members involved militarily there. The Iranian government spokesman responded positively to the invitation stating that "the Islamic regime has always been prepared to help Afghanistan and its people in any way it could."

Additional US conditions such as those demanding an end to Iran’s alleged support for "terrorism" in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, including support for Hamas and other militant groups, have also taken a back seat in Obama’s approach toward Tehran. But does this really mean that the US has adopted an entirely new approach toward Iran? Are we to assume that the long-held strategy according to which "Washington will not tolerate a nuclear Iran" has ceased to exist and the US has succumbed to a nuclear Iran? Is Iran indeed no longer asked to stop "supporting international terrorism" before it can be allowed into the international community?

Neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made any statement that implies a demand for substantial changes by the Iranian regime. Thus, assuming that there has indeed been a substantial policy change by the new US government toward the Iranian regime, the important question is: what have been the Islamic leaders’ responses to these presumed changes?

To begin with, it appears that senior Iranian leaders have avoided passing judgment on Obama and his new approach toward the Islamic regime. They have of course stated that Obama must demonstrate in practice by taking meaningful and positive steps that he is not continuing George Bush’s hostile policies toward Islamic Iran. But neither Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad has attacked Obama on the record. Nor have they rebuked or challenged him on his statements on Iran and on the Middle East in general.

Perhaps one may optimistically conclude that the Iranian leadership is prepared to give Obama time before unleashing the customary anti-US rhetoric that has characterized official Iranian policy toward the US over the past three decades. This optimism is justified by the prompt and positive response Tehran gave to Clinton’s invitation to take part in the talks concerning the future of Afghanistan.

Still, Tehran is not putting all its eggs in one basket when it comes to dealing with the "Great Satan". Although senior Iranian leaders have avoided dismissing Obama, the US has been seriously challenged in other sectors of the Iranian polity.

Since the Obama presidency commenced, many Iranians have been trying hard to cultivate the idea that the US has merely changed its strategy toward Tehran. They argue that US hostility against Iran continues unabated and that the Americans are still determined to overthrow the Islamic regime. In their opinion, the strategy toward Iran adopted by George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives failed to bear fruit. After eight years of sustained economic sanctions, surrounding Islamic Iran with American armed forces and threatening Tehran with possible military strikes, Iran emerged both regionally and internationally stronger than at the start of the George W. Bush administration.

Hence, proponents of this hypothesis argue, US policymakers have been forced to change their strategy toward Islamic Iran. The new US strategy is dubbed the "soft approach" or "intelligent approach". Rather than trying to bring about a regime change in Iran through military invasion, the threat thereof or economic sanctions, the new strategy allegedly seeks to dislodge the Islamic regime from within by cultivating internal opposition to it. This is the strategy that, according to these Iranian sources, the US intelligence apparatus employed in some ex-Soviet bloc countries, resulting in so-called "velvet revolutions".

The "soft strategy" or "velvet revolution" theory has not gone unchallenged inside Iran. One Iranian academic referred to it as "a tool designed by the regime to silence its critics by linking them to a new US drive to topple the regime". The theory has however been gathering momentum and more and more Iranian hardliners argue that Obama has adopted a velvet revolution strategy against Islamic Iran.

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